Big Voices, Dreams, & Alice
Early to rise, early to bed.
In and between I cooked and cleaned and went out of my head.
Going through life with blinders on, it’s tough to see.
I had to get up, get out from under and look for me.
There’s a new girl in town, with a brand new style.
She was just passing through,
but if things work out she’s gonna stay awhile… ba ba bum bum bummmm
—Theme for TV Show Alice, Alan and Marilyn Bergman & David Shire
If you’re like me, and you still love R&B and hip-hop, you probably hear a lot of pessimistic talk about the state of “today’s music”. Although what we know as “today” is ever-changing, there are some who believe the industry (especially as it pertains to rap and R&B) would be better off if some network came up with an Extreme Makeover: Music Edition TV show. Fans and concerned insiders could call in a wrecking crew to overhaul A&R departments, radio formats, and overall presentation.
Just imagine an urgent letter to the show:
Dear Extreme Makeover:
My homeboy Leroy is the lead singer in an R&B group. They have decent production, but Leroy’s always trying to sound like Marvin Gaye and their producer keeps sneaking into the studio and adding James Brown samples to their tracks. Please, please help them get their sh*t together.
Luckily, there’s a voice out there that the optimists can point to and say, “See, good R&B ain’t dead. And you don’t have to dust off your Gladys Knight and Luther Vandross records to hear it.” Although it wouldn’t be quite accurate to categorize her work solely as “R&B” (“pop” and “rock” might also apply), that voice belongs to Alice Smith. Of course, if you listen to her song “Fake is the New Real”, you might get the idea that she would side with the haters who say “today’s music is whack” and “songs had so much more substance back in the day”.
The first time I heard Alice Smith, I actually had no idea I was listening to “Alice Smith”. I had downloaded a several songs by various artists featured on Download.com, and two of those songs, “Dream” and “New Religion” (get them here), belonged to Smith. Since I was cleaning my office while listening to my mp3 player, I didn’t know whose song was playing. But as soon as I heard “Dream”, I couldn’t wait to hear more. I immediately picked up the phone and called a buddy of mine, “Hey, you gotta hear this.”
“Dream” is the first song on Alice Smith’s debut, For Lovers, Dreamers & Me, and it is also the undisputed heavyweight of the album. It rises from the lone staccato of a piano to a full-fledged Broadway-like production. Her voice is smooth and effortless, the way she floats her four-octave vocals over the lush musical tapestry of her band. My favorite part in the song is when she hits the chorus, “I will love you each and every night and all through the day” and she punctuates that “all” with extra emphasis, like Eartha Kitt might have done as Catwoman.
I have played “Dream” to the point that my neighbors are sick of me (and it), but the album contains other gems. Not surprisingly, the four songs containing songwriting contributions from Ms. Smith are bona fide gems. In addition to “Dream”, there’s “Gary Song”, “Do I”, and “Love Endeavor”. “Gary Song”, co-written by Alex Elena, is an upbeat song that recalls funky material by Phoebe Snow and features Zef Noise’s electric violin and John Matias’ acoustic guitar. “Do I”, also co-written by Elena, shares a hint of reggae dub as Smith lovingly drags her vocals across the measures, culminating in the elongated chorus that consists simply of the title’s two words.
I wasn’t kidding when I described “Dream” as resembling a Broadway production. Much of the album actually reminds me of the theme song from seasons one and two of the TV show Alice, the one where the big haired waitress habitually told people to “kiss” her “grits”. Add to that some of Anita Baker’s depth, a shot of Bette Midler’s “The Rose”, a healthy scoop of Fiona Apple’s “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)”, and a smidgeon of Enjoli’s 80s perfume ad (remember this: “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man… ‘cause I’m a woman”). You might also hear some Barbra Streisand, Nina Simone, or Patti Labelle in her work. But just when you think you’ve got her pegged, “Love Endeavor”—the final cut—takes the album out on a Caribbean vibe in which Smith ventures into her higher register to touching effect. Even with all this variety, of styles and influences, For Lovers, Dreamers & Me is remarkably cohesive.
The songs written by others work nicely as well. “Desert Song”, written by Milena Selkirk, Alex Elena, and Topher Mohr, accentuates the cabaret feel of the album while Alex Dickson’s “Know That I…” reveals the soft and gentle side of Smith’s vocal range. “Woodstock”, by Imani Coppola, is another showstopper. Here, Smith wakes up from a “f*cked up dream” (quite appropriate, since the song follows “Dream”) and she longs to get away from the bills and the bustle of the city. There’s a carnival-like atmosphere to the tune that’s quiet during the verses and explodes on the hooks. Such tempo changes are managed to good effect on a number of songs. By album’s end, the technique becomes Smith’s trademark.
Alice Smith offers so much to enjoy—her vocal range, her earnest delivery, her thoughtful writing—that the perceived negatives are miniscule. For instance, “New Religion” is sure to be a popular track but, for me, its appeal wore thin after several listens. The lyrics—thanks to Alex Dickson’s songwriting—are exquisite, but it’s not quite as groovy as the other selections. “Secret” suffers from the same problem, although it is more effective, musically, than “New Religion”. Similarly, “Fake is the New Real” doesn’t hide the ball thematically; you get exactly what you expect from the title. The result presents a conundrum, wherein the song’s frontal assault on fakery turns out to be its strength and its weakness. On the one hand, it seems too blunt. On the other hand, bluntness is probably the best way to attack fakeness.
But even when it comes to the “negatives”, I’m reminded of Nikki Giovanni’s line in her poem “Ego Trippin’”: “I’m so hip even my mistakes are correct”. And so it is with Alice Smith, because the whole of For Lovers, Dreamers & Me is so fresh and so worthwhile, it should make music lovers and dreamers very happy to have it blasting through their speakers.